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Northampton County Court of Common Pleas

Northampton's 911 dispute to enter courtroom

A jury in Philadelphia will decide if fired emergency services vendor EDS Corp. will get $17 million in termination fees from the county.


By BRYAN HAY Of The Morning Call

James Hickey keeps a small bottle of 911 hot sauce atop a filing cabinet in his office.

Northampton County's director of administration plans to chug the fiery liquid if the county wins the court battle with its fired 911 vendor.

The burning question of whether the county will have to pay $17 million in termination fees will be left to a jury to decide.

The case involving a long, acrimonious relationship between the county and its ousted 911 vendor, EDS Corp., will open this morning in Philadelphia before U.S. Judge Curtis Joyner. It is expected to last about eight weeks.

The jury will have to determine if EDS, formerly MCI Systemhouse, supplied a defective computer-aided dispatch system as part of its 10year, $43 million contract with the county. The first privatized 911 system went on line in July 1997 but was replaced a year later by a less expensive county operation.

''It is their contention that their [system] was fully operational, but it was not fully functional. Therefore they met their contractual obligation,'' Hickey said.

''That's like purchasing a new car, but you can only go 30 mph. I don't believe any consumer would have an obligation to accept a vehicle that could not exceed 30 mph. That's basically what our case will come down to at trial.''

The county will try to show that EDS' system was a failure and caused dispatch delays and errors. The computer system allows dispatchers to identify the location of an emergency even if the caller is unable to speak into the phone.

EDS' legal team will try to convince jurors that the county did not cooperate in providing geo graphical data to load into the system. The company will try to show it met its contractual obligations and is owed the $17 million to cover its investment.

The company has ceased commenting on the matter because the case is set to begin. ''We're confident of our legal position and look forward to a resolution of this case through the judicial process,'' EDS spokesman Bill Ritz said.

Where the money will come from if the county loses ''is not an immediate issue,'' Hickey said, noting that the case will likely drag on through appeals for years.

The 911 saga entered the legal arena in December 1997 when County Council sued in county court to get councilman and 911 liaison Rick Weaver unfettered access to the private communication center. Then, in January 1998, MCI Systemhouse countersued in federal court, saying it had been defamed by council members. The suit, which also names the county government as a defendant, claims council interfered with contractual relations and asks the court to say that the company complied with the terms of the contract.

And that contractual issue is what a federal jury will decide.

Former County Executive Bill Brackbill signed the contract, which became a central issue in the 1997 executive race. Last month, Joyner ruled the contract is valid and binding on the current administration.

The decision changed the county's rhetoric about how the contract was invalid because it was not publicly bid. However, the case still comes down to how EDS performed under the contract, Hickey said.

Brackbill's successor, Executive Glenn Reibman, fired the company in July 1998, two years into the contract; the county cited cost and performance of the system to support its decision.

The county replaced EDS July 29 with its own system, which is expected to cost $22 million over 10 years.

''We're not going to walk away from our investment,'' Lawrence Consalvos, managing director of EDS' public safety group, vowed in July. ''We have deemed our performance to be a total success.''

Hickey believes the county will be awarded damages. He said testimony will reveal that EDS was responsible for gathering computer system data.

With the exception of Reibman, both sides are pessimistic a settlement will be achieved before the trial opens.

Settlement discussions have been fruitless. In January, the county rejected an offer to pay EDS $15 million to end the litigation; in April, the county offered $5.8 million to buy EDS' radio equipment to end the conflict, but the company refused.

Hickey is still prepared to settle. But EDS has withdrawn its assets from the county and no longer has 911 equipment the county needs. Hickey declined to say how much the county is willing to offer but said any settlement offer would likely be drawn from the county's $12 million surplus.

''This is a very simple case, as far as I'm concerned,'' Reibman said. ''I don't think a big corporation like EDS wants to be dragged through the courtroom. There may be a settlement [today] on the courtroom steps before the gavel comes down.''

Hickey added, ''If we win, I'm going to crack open that bottle of hot sauce.''

-- Homer Beanfang (, October 28, 1999

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